The International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings on a South Africa legal case alleging that the state of Israel is breaching its obligations under the UN Genocide Convention could help protect Palestinian civilians, end the man-made humanitarian catastrophe in the occupied Gaza Strip and offer a glimmer of hope for international justice, said Amnesty International today.
South Africa filed an application alleging that Israel’s acts and failure to act in relation to Palestinians in Gaza, in the wake of the attacks on 7 October 2023 by Hamas and other armed groups, are genocidal in character. South Africa’s application urges the court to order “provisional measures” to protect the Palestinian people in Gaza, including by calling upon Israel to immediately halt military attacks that “constitute or give rise to violations of the Genocide Convention” and to rescind related measures amounting to collective punishment and forced displacement. Initial hearings will take place at the ICJ in The Hague on 11 and 12 January.
Amnesty International has not made a determination that the situation in Gaza amounts to genocide. However, there are alarming warning signs given the staggering scale of death and destruction with more than 23,000 Palestinians killed in just over three months and a further 10,000 missing under the rubble, presumed dead, as well as an appalling spike in dehumanizing and racist rhetoric against Palestinians by certain Israeli government and military officials. This, coupled with Israel’s imposition of an illegal siege in Gaza, which has cut off or severely restricted the civilian population’s access to water, food, medical assistance and fuel, is inflicting unfathomable levels of suffering and puts the survival of those within Gaza at risk.
“There is no end in sight to the mass human suffering, devastation and destruction we are witnessing on an hourly basis in Gaza. The risk that Gaza would be transformed from the world’s biggest open-air prison to a giant graveyard has, crushingly, materialized right before our eyes,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“As the United States continues to use its veto power to block the UN Security Council from calling for a ceasefire, war crimes and crimes against humanity are rife, and the risk of genocide is real. States have a positive obligation to prevent and punish genocide and other atrocity crimes. The ICJ’s examination of Israel’s conduct is a vital step for the protection of Palestinian lives, to restore trust and credibility in the universal application of international law, and to pave the way for justice and reparation for victims.”
All states have an international legal obligation to act to prevent genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 and, as determined by the ICJ previously, under customary law. This means that the obligation to prevent is binding on all states, including states that are not party to the Convention. On 16 November 2023 a group of UN experts warned of a “genocide in the making” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and particularly in Gaza.
“It is difficult to overstate the scale of the devastation and destruction that has been wrought in Gaza over the past three months. Much of northern Gaza has been destroyed and at least 85% of Gaza’s population is now internally displaced. Many Palestinians and human rights experts see this as part of an Israeli strategy to render Gaza “unlivable”. This has been coupled with disturbing statements from certain Israeli officials advocating for the unlawful deportation or forcible transfer of Palestinians outside Gaza and abhorrent use of dehumanizing rhetoric,” said Agnès Callamard.
“Pending a final ruling of the International Court of Justice on whether the crimes of genocide and other crimes under international law have been committed, an urgent order to implement provisional measures would be an important means to help prevent further death, destruction and civilian suffering and provide a warning to other states that they must not contribute to grave violations and crimes against Palestinians.”
Genocide is defined as certain acts committed with “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a protected group” such as a national, ethnical, religious and racial group.
The provisional measures requested by South Africa include calls on Israel to desist from acts within Article II of the Genocide Convention including “killing members of a protected group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. As such, it calls on Israel to prevent forced displacement and deprivation of access to adequate food, water, humanitarian assistance, and medical supplies to Palestinians. Under the Convention, nobody, including the highest government officials, can claim personal immunity for any alleged acts.
South Africa’s ICJ application cites evidence gathered by Amnesty International documenting damning evidence of war crimes and other violations of international law by Israeli forces in their intense bombardment of Gaza, including direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, indiscriminate and other unlawful attacks, forced displacement of civilians and collective punishment of the civilian population. It also cites research by Amnesty International highlighting that Israel’s system of domination and oppression of Palestinians amounts to apartheid.
Amnesty International also condemns the war crimes committed by Hamas and other armed groups on 7 October, including hostage-taking and deliberate killing of civilians, and their continued indiscriminate rocket attacks.
The organization has repeatedly called for the investigation of violations of international law by all parties and for an immediate sustained ceasefire, the release of all remaining civilian hostages held by armed groups in Gaza, the release of Palestinians arbitrarily detained by Israel and for Israel to end its illegal and inhumane siege of Gaza.